The sun sets on JUSTIFIED

April 21, 2015

 

justified2 Greetings again from the darkness. The reason I don’t typically write about television shows is that very few justify (sorry!) the effort .  However, the series finale of “Justified” aired last week, and it’s a series I will definitely miss.

Many people disregarded it immediately assuming it was just another western – you know, since the lead character wears a hat and holsters his gun. But at its core, it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys … only the good guy had some flaws and the bad guys were anything but the backwoods hillbillies they appeared to be. The three categories that elevated the show above typical TV fluff were: Writing, Characters, and Acting.

WRITING

Let’s start with Elmore Leonard. His novella “Fire in the Hole” is the source material for the show, and provided the emphasis on character and dialogue that was so crucial to its unique feel and style.

Ahh yes … those words. The majestic verbosity was spread across all characters – lawmen, judges, and the hardened criminals. Heck, even the teenage girl, bartender, BBQ pitmaster, and hired gunslinger were loquacious in their ability to turn a phrase.

For those of us who strain and sweat over the use of a particular word or the structure of a sentence, the show humbled us weekly through the apparent ease with which the English language was played like a finely tuned instrument.

As for the story, it was remarkable that the battle of guns and wits between Raylan and Boyd endured for the entire series run; and it was fascinating to see how each season brought a new criminal element and challenge … some tying into current characters, while others were more standalone.

CHARACTERS

justified A few of the characters managed to stick around for the series run … some more regular than others. Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder will both go down as iconic TV characters, but it’s important to note the other regulars such as Raylan’s boss and father figure Art Mullens, the other two Deputy U.S. Marshals Tim and Rachel, and of course, Ava Crowder whose character arc was broader and more diverse than any other on the show.

There was also a group of recurring characters who felt like regulars, which speaks again to the sterling writing: Raylan’s on-again-off-again squeeze Winona, the smarmy Wynn Duffy, Boyd’s cousin Johnny, the comical Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett, and the memorable Arlo Givens (Raylan’s shifty father).

The third group of characters to mention includes those that had a dramatic impact on only one or two seasons: the isolated pitmaster Limehouse, Loretta the teenage survivor, the good-hearted hooker Ellen May, smooth talking Ty Walker, the lovable Constable Bob, the not so lovable Bo Crowder (Boyd’s dad) and criminal masterminds such as Robert Quarles from Detroit, Katherine Hale and Avery Markham who sometimes worked together and other times not, and most importantly Mags Bennett – the driving force behind the peak of season two.

Twenty two. That’s how many characters are named in the previous three paragraphs. And it’s pretty easy to name another 15 or more characters that played key roles. It’s not just the sheer quantity of characters, but rather the fact that they were so well written that we felt like we immediately knew them … plus they were fun to watch.

ACTING

Every actor dreams of being cast in a well written show. Take those extraordinary lines of dialogue and really good actors never have to over-do it … in fact, they can let the scenes breathe. As filled with tension as any show you’ve seen, it still managed to have a slow pace that matched what we expected from Harlan County Kentucky.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the roles of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Chief Deputy US Marshal Art Mullins (Nick Searcy), or smarmy Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). All four of these actors embodied their particular characters so completely that we viewers fully accepted them. A similar comparison would be James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. It’s rare for TV shows, but “Justified” had four!

The supporting roles never disappointed, though the survival rate varied immensely. Joelle Carter as Ava saw her screen time grow as the show progressed, though Erica Tazel (Rachel) and Jacob Pitts (Tim) are probably the only two who could offer up any kind of argument that they had to work to get noticed. Natalie Zea as Winona bounced in and out from season to season, and her presence never failed to bring about a change in Raylan just when he most needed one. Raymond J Barry as Arlo Givens was one of the show’s most colorful figures, though Damon Herriman and Jeremy Davies, as Dewey Crowe and Dickie Bennett respectively, gave him a run for the title.

As each season brought focus to a new criminal lead, the acting was varied and spectacular at times thanks to Neal McDonough, Michael Rappaport, Mykelti Williamson, M.C. Gainey, and of course, the final season with Garrett Dillahunt, Mary Steenburgen and Sam Elliott. Special mention goes to Margo Martindale for her Emmy Award winning performance as Mags Bennett in Season Two.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Hand-in-hand with the importance of Leonard’s writing is the work of show creator, producer and director, Graham Yost. Wisely working with Leonard those first few seasons (Mr. Leonard passed away in 2013), Yost ensured the weekly scripts were packed with the expected lines of dialogue, and his feel for the material allowed him to never miss with his casting.

The brilliant first scene of the first season introduces us to Raylan as he squares off against a bad guy while poolside in Miami. It’s this quick wit, quick draw and quick trigger that gets Raylan shipped back to the area of his youth, Harlan County Kentucky. The rest of the show taught us never to get comfortable around a hillbilly drawl, bring your own glass if someone offers you their “apple pie”, and the toughest bond to break is when you “dig coal together” with a buddy.

WWED


ELMORE LEONARD remembered

August 20, 2013

elmore Early this morning, word of the passing of Elmore Leonard started making its way through news outlets and Twitter.  He was 87 and died of complications from a recent stroke that had initially been reported as “not too serious”.   Mr. Leonard was one of the great American writers, and though his writing spanned more than sixty years, he may never have been more popular than today, thanks to the TV series “Justified“.

Mr. Leonard served in the Navy during WWII, and worked in advertising after graduating from the University of Detroit.  His family moved to Detroit when he was very young and he lived there the rest of his life, mostly in the township of Bloomfield Hills.  He described the city as inspirational and it often played a key role in his stories.  Mr. Leonard began writing Western stories and recalled selling the story for “3:10 to Yuma” for $90.00

With 45 published novels and countless short stories and articles, Leonard was incredibly prodigious as a writer and dedicated to writing every day.  His routine included long-hand on a yellow pad, followed by typewritten pages (never a computer).  When he made the move from Westerns to Crime stories, his “The Big Bounce” was rejected 84 times, a reminder of the incredibly complicated industry.

Hollywood loved Leonard’s style, colorful characters, black humor, and intricate plotting. Some of the best adaptations of his work include:

elmore1 “Justified“.  The TV series from creator Graham Yost revolves around Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, one of the more interesting and entertaining characters as portrayed by Timothy Olyphant. The series specializes in bad guys who are often as clever as the good guys … as evidenced by the terrific Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder.

 

Jackie Brown (1997).  Quentin Tarantino’s only directorial effort involving material he did not write. Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” provides the foundation for this twisty thriller and the antics of Pam Grier and Samuel L Jackson.

3:10 to Yuma (1957, 2007). Not very many writers are involved with film adaptations of their work across a 50 year span. Director Delmer Daves directed Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in the original, and director James Mangold followed up 50 years later with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Both are tense thrillers with moral statements.

Hombre (1967).  Paul Newman stars in this fine western directed by Martin Ritt. Human nature is on full display from this Leonard novel.

Get Shorty (1995).  John Travolta stars as an out of his element (or is he?) mobster when he heads to Hollywood to collect a debt. The supporting cast is exceptional and director Barry Sonnefeld perfectly captures the finest Leonard comedic dialogue.

Out of Sight (1998).  George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, in their sizzling onscreen best, star in a movie that oozes style from director Steven Soderbergh.

Premiering this year at the Toronto Film Festival will be the latest screen adaptation of a Leonard work, Life of Crime.  It stars Jennifer Aniston and is based on Leonard’s novel “The Switch”.   Not surprisingly, there are numerous other works in progress (mostly TV) that take advantage of Leonard’s talent.

Elmore Leonard’s efficiency with words is renowned and he often said that he “tries to leave out the parts that people skip”.  Clearly a man who understood not just writing, but what makes reading enjoyable.  My favorite of his quotes: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”.  That’s a lesson we hope carries through to future generations of writers.

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